Similar to its two predecessors in melodrama and gloss, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift follows in its own tradition of quality. Extreme in its portrayal of races, cars, fights, and women, the film’s excess proves overwhelming, transforming the most obvious and formulaic plot turns into reasons for shortness of breath.
Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) has a speed hunger that forces him to be nomadic: moving city to city, running from the laws he’s broken. His Texas accent earns him the nickname “cowboy,” an important title in the film, as it seems everywhere Boswell goes he’s standing tall in the face of judgment and heading toward the golden sunset en route to his next Mexico. The first race, set in Arizona against an insecure football player with “his daddy’s $80,000 car,” takes place on the building site of a development of McHouses. Half-built pre-fab homes line the narrow path the cars tensely travel, while the female who’s wagered herself (like an object) to the winner of the race, rides in the sports car. The disregard for traditional working class values (otherwise clearly embraced by the protagonist) makes Boswell’s expulsion to Japan seem almost like a moral casting out. This boy who plays at speed racer seems the most authentic among the high school students in Arizona, but in Japan, his status as an exile only makes transparent his decision to be an outcast.
Those who oppose Boswell call him “gaijin” and this title is one littered with nuances Boswell himself can’t understand. This casualty of translation (among a million other casualties) is never addressed, though certain unwittingly comical moments do allude to things not so much lost as “stuck” in translation. The moment in which we see the ever-adaptive love interest Neela (Nathalie Kelley) chatting with her schoolgirl friends, one girl seems to pose an issue. Neela utters one word of Japanese in her murky Australian accent, and all the girls say “ohhhhhh!!!”
In America, the issue of conformity was one that included law, class, and individualism. Once in Japan, conformity becomes a matter of ethnicity (with no pun made of “race”). Keeping to the polarity of melodrama, topics that might have alluded to ambiguity fell under the radar. The lack of control that was so critical to the danger of “drifting” could have suffered a longer explanation. Luckily, in the last car movie I saw, Doc Hudson explained the concept to Lightning McQueen so I was hip to the scene (Ka-chow!).
The climactic race of Tokyo Drift occurs on a winding mountain that resembles so many traditional Japanese landscapes and in what feels like homage, a liberated camera travels from curve to curve down the mountain, mirroring the drifting of the cars from precipice to precipice. Similarly fluid are the transitions from video-phone to video-phone as the onlookers phone each other the views from their situations on the mountain. The camera’s motion, gliding unhinged from one rock face to another, conveys the uncertainty that makes the concept of drifting so dynamic. In this, the direction reacts (if under it’s own breath) to the polar and uncomplicated storyline, leaving the fantasy of Tokyo Drift uncompromised but not unquestioned.